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How Do We Separate Truth From Lies in War Crime Reporting?

We all know the problem. Any journalist or historian who has to recount atrocities is faced with the same dilemma. What do you do when an army, militia or cult is reported to have committed an outrageous crime against humanity – and has really perpetrated many outrages in the past – when you have no proof that this particular event actually occurred? Thus we read this week that “19 Yazidi girls [were] burned alive for refusing to have sex with their Isis captors”.

The unhealthy sado-sexual content made this a foully titillating story. Before they wrote about it, journalists thus had a special obligation to ensure that it was true. But was it? Isis has itself boasted of the enslavement of Yazidi women in its magazine Dabiq. It has burned prisoners alive, filming their death agonies. Isis murderers have cut the heads off aid workers and foreign journalists, taping these very cruelties for the world to see. They have shot thousands of prisoners into mass graves. Just such a charnel house was discovered by Iraqi forces near Fallujah this week, containing around 400 bodies, most of them Iraqi soldiers shot at close range in the head but including civilians accused of “espionage”.

However, there was a big problem with the terrible story of the Yazidi girls who were supposedly immolated in Mosul. The information originated not, as usual, from Isis itself, but from a Kurdish news agency which had every reason to spread propaganda about Isis “terror”.

Local correspondents in Kurdish Iraq had grave doubts about the story. There are no taboos in the Beirut press about showing photographs of dead babies, burning women or eviscerated children. But – always a grim weathervane of the truth – most Arab newspapers in Lebanon ignored a story to which they would normally have given lip-smacking prominence.

Now we all know the story of the crucified Belgian nuns whom German troops supposedly nailed to church doors in their advance towards France in 1914. The world was appalled at Prussian barbarity – even though the reports turned out to be fiction. The problem was that German forces did indeed commit atrocities against Belgian civilians, putting women as well as men before their firing squads after German soldiers were shot by snipers in the area around Liege. There are real images in the archives of the pathetic corpses of these poor Belgians, women in white skirts lying among the dead. But such was the public’s disgust at the discovery that the tale of the crucified nuns was fake that German atrocity stories came to be widely disbelieved.

In the case of the Armenian genocide, in which Turkish forces slaughtered one and a half million Armenian Christians in 1915 – a war crime for which there are photographs and eyewitness testimony galore – no-one doubted that these mass atrocities occurred.  Allied governments expressed their horror, noting that German officers training the Ottoman army had been witness to what was to become the first industrial Holocaust of the 20th century.

Only decades later, when Ataturk’s new Turkey became a regional power, did Western governments start to cast doubt on these historically accurate accounts of Turkish Ottoman wickedness. Indeed, the British and US governments today have gone to almost eccentric lengths to deny that the greatest war crime of the First World War – in which piles of Armenian babies were indeed burned alive – actually took place.  Just look at those tall stories about crucified nuns, their officials scoff. Wasn’t that another fiction from the First World War?

And so we come to Auschwitz. Europeans and Americans were well aware of the Nazi persecution of Jews long before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Dachau concentration camp already existed. But when the first accounts of the German mass murder of Jews in the Soviet Union reached neutral Switzerland and wartime London, they were largely disregarded. Even the first detailed accounts of the mass gassing and burning of Jews at Auschwitz and other extermination camps in eastern Europe in 1942 became caught up in the long grass of previously discredited horror stories from 1914 Belgium. Hadn’t we heard about these German “atrocities” before?

The Daily Telegraph published the first reports of Auschwitz only in a short story below the fold of the front page. Thus the first evidence of the Nazi Holocaust, the numerically greatest crime against humanity in modern history, was treated with doubt rather than credibility. It paid the wartime allies to keep things that way:  they wanted to bomb German cities, not Nazi extermination camps.

But what would you expect of Allied governments which maintained for years after the war – in the interest of humouring Uncle Joe Stalin and his successors – that the Katyn forest massacre of the Polish officer corps in 1940 had been perpetrated by the Nazis rather than the Soviet NKVD. The list goes on and on. So do the fake atrocities. In 1982, for example, Israeli journalists claimed they had found evidence that Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon had established a clinic in which civilians were killed so that their blood could be drained – in order to supply blood transfusions for wounded Palestinian guerrillas.

The story collapsed within days. But it still pops up from time to time among the myths of the 1975-90 Lebanon war, muddying the awful truths of real atrocities like the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre of up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians by Israel’s Lebanese allies. Each false atrocity bleeds into the body of evidence of other, real crimes, contaminating the truth for decades to come.

The “crucified” nuns cast doubt on the dead Belgian civilians of 1914 and, subsequently, on the first evidence of the Holocaust. The so-called “Holocaust deniers” now search for the slightest discrepancy in the evidence of Nazi crimes to cast doubt on the entire criminal nature of the Nazi regime. Thus we journos have to investigate each bestiality which comes our way, usually in the Middle East, with semantic scalpels. For if it turns out that those 19 Yazidi girls were never burned to death – and we must sincerely hope they were not – then the future “deniers” of Isis crimes will perpetuate the “innocence” of this vicious cult for another generation.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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